Climbing Mount Barracks

University students investigate Charlottesville

Beautiful vineyards. Delicious restaurants. Monticello. And, of course, the University itself. Charlottesville has no shortage of tourist attractions, but the list became a little longer when this winter's snowstorms hit the Barracks Road Shopping Center.

After the city experienced a record-setting 55 inches of snow this season, it all had to go somewhere. For many University students, there are still piles on either side of their driveways that linger despite the relative warmth of the past week. Barracks has had a similar problem, but its piles are attracting a lot more attention.

The reason? They're big. Really big. So big that many welcome them as Charlottesville's newest mountain range.

"I remember the first time I saw it," Charlottesville resident Sallie Cathcart said. "It was just ridiculous. I had no idea it could happen."

In fact, the city's newest landmark has become so well-known that even Janelle Stevenson, corporate communications manager for Federal Realty Investment Trust - the Rockville, Md. company that manages the shopping center - is aware of it.

The most prominent of the "snow mountains" that pepper the shopping center has its base next to Chipotle Mexican Grill and has spawned a great deal of local interest. A "Mt. Barracks" fan page created by Cathcart on Facebook, for example, has more than 3,000 fans. On the group's wall, Cathcart has posted statements such as, "We all bow down to your mighty greatness," and, "I climbed to the very top in heels."

Cathcart, 15, said she was surprised by the response.

"I realized no one had created a group for the actual pile," she said, so she started one.\nSoon, fans were pouring in.

"There was one day we got 800 people," she said.

Cathcart expects the pile, which she estimates to be 40 feet high, to remain until May, though posts to the Facebook page call for "a snowball fight here in June."

Apart from these amateur guesses, though, some individuals are evaluating the meteorological wonder more seriously.\nThe Mount Chipotle National Research Observatory, which was founded by University environmental sciences students, purports to raise awareness of the pile by "conducting research and educational programs and interpreting the heritage of the Mount Chipotle region," according to its Web site.

The group started a betting pool within the environmental sciences department to guess when the snow pile would eventually vanish.

"It started as casual conversation" about computer models of the mountain, said Graduate Arts & Sciences student Luke Cole, a Mount Chipotle NRO member.

Now, with 60 bets at $10 each, the pool supplements the "billions in the observatory's endowment," Cole said. The funds go toward departmental social events, he added.

Most of the bets published on the Mount Chipotle NRO Web site call for the pile to melt in April or May, but official predictions may have become "more conservative since the Himalayan glacier Climategate," explained David Seekell, another Mount Chipotle NRO researcher and graduate student.

"We can say that, at the current rate of melting, it will be gone by 2035," he said.

And it is not just the predicted lifespan of the pile causing debate. The name has raised contention, as well, as some individuals who have posted on the Facebook page are debating the merits of calling the buildup Mount Barracks versus calling it Mount Chipotle.

As the fan page she created indicates, Cathcart feels "Mount Barracks makes it more Charlottesville; there are Chipotles everywhere."

But others point out that there are multiple piles in Barracks - indeed, the NRO counts at least six, including Mount Teet, Mount GameStop and the "bourbon-soaked" Mount ABC, as Seekell said.

The researchers compare the naming distinction to that of Mount McKinley, which was known to the area's native population as Denali. Seekell asserted that "'Mount Barracks' is offensive to the native people," and Cole went so far as to call the name "disgusting."

The group may have been swayed, however, by its "research grant" from Chipotle - gift certificates donated to the betting pool. Cole said Chipotle has agreed to fund research "for 99 years, at a rate of one burrito every 16 years."

This rate is fine with Seekell - after all, "those are pretty big burritos."

Anyone planning a group lunch on Mount Barracks - or Chipotle - may have to give up hope, however, because University alum AJ Maher, who first proposed the betting pool, said the NRO "can't officially recommend" climbing on the mountain, though all the researchers have been on it because of their sampling efforts.

Although tourism provides "opportunities for education,"

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